Monthly Archives: November 2013

A New Approach to Thankfulness

I have, unfortunately, never developed an aptitude for thankfulness. I’m a glass-is-half-empty kind of girl, and to be fair, for the last decade or so, my life glass has seemed a bit dry. A lot of wonderful things have happened to me over the last ten years – meeting and marrying Dustin, having a child, learning, growing, creating a family – but I’ve also had to deal with a lot – a diagnosis of Bipolar syndrome, joblessness, tooth problems, jaw problems, mysterious bone-growing problems, and chronic pain. In some ways, my twenties and early thirties have been a steady progression through one disappointment after another. Don’t get me wrong, I have always been pessimistic. But I used to be a whole lot less pessimistic than I am now. Life can only kick you with its steel-toed boots so many time before you stop expecting it to hand you a cookie.

Needless to say, thankfulness is not my strong suit. I am great at misery and self-pity. I am an expert complainer. But gratitude? Seeing the silver lining? Not so much.

I wish I had a better attitude, especially after reading everyone’s Facebook posts on Turkey Day. There is a whole lot of delightful, heartfelt optimism and gratefulness out there, and I’d like to finally be a part of it somehow. I have therefore decided to take a stab at the whole thankfulness thing this year – in my own way, of course. Instead of straining my eyes to make out the silver lining in what seems to me like dark and ominous storm clouds, I have chosen to take all the bad, unhappy, and unfortunate things in my life and simply be thankful for those. Here goes…

1. I am thankful for constant pain. Feeling pain is an indication that I am reasonably healthy – that my nervous system is functioning correctly – that I am not a leper or an amputee or a paraplegic. Constant pain means that I am still alive. Bam! Thankful.

2. I am thankful for stress and overwork. Having too many things to do means that I can still contribute to my family and my society. Being tired and overwhelmed is an indication that I have not actually given up and refused to get out of bed. I am still trying to be a good human being – to be responsible and productive. Stress and overwork are a sure sign that I still feel normal human urges and emotions. Bam! Thankful.

3. I am thankful for minor financial anxieties. Worrying about how we will pay for new work shoes or buy Christmas presents this year means that I am not worrying about more important things – like how I will pay for my food or medicine or how I will keep my child alive. Bam! Thankful.

4. I am thankful for depression. Yeesh. This is a hard one. Okay…if I did not experience periods of crippling depression, I would not be the person I am today. I would have chosen a different career – had kids earlier – lost a lot of opportunities to become stronger and more resilient. I would have missed out on the exact, weird, wonderful child that I did end up getting. I would not have met some of my dearest friends. And I would not have seen, beyond a doubt, how much my husband loves me. Without my periods of unreasonable, gut-wrenching sadness, I would not be me. And, all things considered, I really quite like being me. Bam! Thankful.

Huh. Maybe there really is something to be said for optimism. This whole thankfulness racket really does kind of bring about a sense of peace and well-being – I may need to make a habit of it.

Happy belated Thanksgiving, everybody, and especially to my fellow pessimists. I suggest that you take a moment and count your blessings (or your curses, as the case may be). You may find, as I did, that there are a few refreshing drinks left in the glass after all.


In Defense of Christmas Excess

“Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat. If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do. If you haven’t got a ha’penny then God bless you!” – Mother Goose

The season of Advent is almost upon us. I know this because the number of Facebook posts about materialism and giving meaningful gifts and the ‘reason for the season’ have increased significantly. There has also been a sharp incline in the number of smug banners that encourage you to ‘like’ if you don’t decorate for Christmas before Thanksgiving.

I am a Christmas enthusiast, and while I don’t necessarily believe that less-excited people are Scrooges or Grinches or joyless executives from Hallmark holiday movies, I do wish sometime that everyone got as into Christmas as I do. I guess I just don’t know what’s not to love about this season. What other time of the year is rampant with ancient traditions, cookies, cakes, and candy, brightly colored packages, festivity, goofy music, and non-stop sentimental jewelry commercials? (Don’t say Valentines Day, because even though you would be correct, that takes away from the validity of my point – which is, of course, that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year.) It’s not just the fatty food and the presents that make Christmas so great, either (though they help). There is something else. Something deeper: an undercurrent of joy that is helped along by the outer trappings of holly and tinsel. What JRR Tolkien referred to as Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

I grew up in a faith tradition (non-denominational evangelical in name; Baptist in practice) that did not observe the church calendar. When I joined a Presbyterian church as a young adult I was slightly amazed to learn that there was such a thing as a church calendar. Advent, Lent, Pentecost…I knew nothing of these rhythmic cycles of plenty and want, grief and joy, abstinence and plenitude. Preparing myself for Christmas involved tearing off construction paper links, shopping, baking, or opening doors on a chocolate calendar. These are all great things, to be sure, and things I still like to do, but do not involve the level of introspection and anticipation I have come to appreciate about the Advent rituals at my church. Lighting the candles, one by one, reading the ancient prophesies, preparing our hearts and minds to receive the gift of Immanuel, God with us.

Really, though, no matter how much you have prepared during Advent, Christmas always seems to burst forward unexpectedly, at the eleventh hour. In the cold gloom of short days, bare trees, and oppressive darkness, the strongest candle is lit. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

I think that’s why it bothers me when people want to make a lesser deal out of Christmas. You cannot remove the extravagance and celebration and excess and festivity from this season without taking away from its core meaning. And for me, the Christmas season is essentially a good catastrophe. A slap on the head of goodness and generosity. It is, to quote Tolkien again, a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to reoccur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, or sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance. It denies, (in the face of much evidence if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy…

I don’t know about you, but I often need a reminder that there will be no final defeat. That the unseen face of the universe wears a smile, and not a frown. And that is why I start listening to Christmas carols on November 1st; why I get my tree as early as possible and bake ridiculous amounts of cookies; why I spend more than I should on gifts for friends and family. That is why I like cheesy Christmas commercials and revel in vapid movies like ‘the Twelve Dates of Christmas’ (starring a much older and less-blond Mark Paul Gossler) and actually enjoy going to the mall in December. I don’t want to miss a minute of the unbelievable phenomenon of Christmas.

Christmas is coming, people! The goose is getting fat! I’ll be ushering in the season this weekend by drinking a peppermint latte and watching Holiday Inn. And eating a half pound of fudge. ‘Tis the season!

A happy and blessed and excessive Advent season to you all.


Working From Home: Is the Grass Really Greener?

I don’t know whether it’s a definite element of my illness or just a natural personal quirk, but I have always struggled with a touch of social anxiety. It’s not that I mind actually being with people. I like people. But when an element of obligation enters into social situations, I start to struggle. Going places is no problem, but having to go somewhere, having to do something, having to be with people has always thrown me for a definite loop. Because of this aversion, working at home has always seemed like my ultimate dream job. No driving involved. No boss to call when Penelope has pink eye. No rules; no socks. In my work-at-home fantasies, I always pictured myself sleeping in, leisurely wandering downstairs and starting my work day with a steaming cup of hot cocoa.

That dream has now actually become a reality – a reality that is more toddler-based and less like a commercial for French-Vanilla Coffee Mate than I had imagined – and while I do avoid the sickening feeling of dread I used to experience on Sunday evenings, I find myself pigheadedly longing to go somewhere physical for work again. Balancing a writing career with all the duties of a full-time stay-at-home mom is daunting, to say the least. My dream mornings were peaceful and productive, like a excerpt from Walden’s Pond. My real mornings are more like this:

6:45-8:00 AM:  Try to ignore the sound of “Maaaama! Maaaama!” repeated ad naseum in a sing-song voice.

8:00-8:20 AM: Wheedle and bargain with Penelope so that she will allow me to remove her soaking, smelly pajamas.

8:20-8:25 AM: Change a poopy diaper. Placate rashy, weepy daughter with promises of liberal amounts of diaper cream and Elmo’s World.

8:25-8:35 AM: Renege on promise of Elmo’s World and instead turn on PBS, which is easier to access. Put Penelope in her high chair with a bowl of cheerios. Forget what I’m doing and give her an adult spoon. Field more weeping. Take adult spoon back to the kitchen and replace it with plastic yellow toddler spoon.

8:35-9:40 AM: Sit at my work laptop with a bowl of generic Coco Puffs. Check my Facebook account. Check my work email. Check my non-work email. Check Dustin’s non-work email. Dink around on the internet. Shoot a dirty look at the TV, which is playing the Elvis-inspired Dinosaur Train theme song. Consider how much I hate Elvis. Register the fact that Penelope has been asking for more Cheerios for the last five minutes and pour her another bowl. Try to start my work – researching a new software – but instead stare blankly at a computer generated Pteranodon and her adopted brother, who is a T-Rex. Wonder why Buddy doesn’t try to eat Tiny and their other siblings, Shiny and Don. Feel vaguely guilty that my daughter has been watching TV for over an hour.

9:40-10:00 AM: Clean yogurt and cheerios off Penelope’s shirt. Empty the dishwasher. Check my Facebook account again. Watch two minutes of a video tutorial about the software I’m currently researching. Contemplate the merits of a hot shower.

10:00-11:18 AM: Walk aimlessly throughout the house, looking for something productive to do. Fold laundry.  Sing Old MacDonald 13 times. Put Penelope into her crib with a mountain of toys and a sippy cup of cold milk. Breath a sigh of relief.

11:18-11:59 AM: Eat a hurried lunch and watch an episode of Sister Wives that I have already re-watched. More than once.

12:00-3:00 PM: Sit down at the computer and desperately try to catch up on all the work I should have accomplished already. Feel tired and cranky and rushed. Attempt (unsuccessfully) to keep Dustin on the line as long as I can when he calls from work, because the only adult I have interacted with thus far has been Mrs. Pteranodon.

I think it’s human nature to believe that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Why, we’ve even come up with a great idiom to explain that concept: namely, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

I like my writing job and I like being a mom, but sometimes I feel that, in trying to do the jobs simultaneously, I’m failing at both. I don’t feel good about the fact that Penelope, at two years of age, has already developed the vocabulary to say “Mama get off the computer!” I also don’t feel good about writing reviews while half my mind is wondering what was that crash upstairs and should I stop this momentum I have finally built to go investigate?

There is something to be said for leading a compartmentalized life, where work stuff stays at work and home stuff stays at home and nary the twain shall meet. But I struggle with enough feelings of guilt – draining the family resources with my medical issues, dragging down Dustin and Penelope with my dark moods, not contributing, blah, blah, blah – without adding a crushing burden of guilt about the path I have chosen. I’m a writer. I should be writing. A sense of contribution to the world is a good way to stay mentally healthy. I am also a mother. I am a good mother (well, the jury’s still out on that, I guess, but I do my best). I’ve wasted enough of my life wishing for things to be different. I thought I would be happier when I got married. I thought I would be happier when I had a baby. I thought working from home would finally make everything wrong in my life magically right. I’m starting to realize that circumstances alone can’t make me happy (I know, how original and profound. I should have been a philosopher).

Perk of working from home: time with this weirdo!

Perk of working from home: time with this weirdo!

Working from home is not a perfect solution, but I genuinely don’t think that working at an office would be easy either. After all, I have worked at offices, and I was not happy. If I were at an office, I would not get to look up from my workstation and see my baby frowning in concentration as she engineers a block tower. I would not get to have spontaneous dance parties, either. And I would have to wear shoes and pants without an elastic waist. So…yeah, I am happy I get to do what I love and stay home at the same time. It may not be perfect, but working from home (as a sweet old Japanese lady cheerfully says of single parenthood in a memorable episode of King of the Hill) “has provided me many opportunities for hardship.”

Hardship, certainly. But also opportunities!


Sea Bathing and Other Metaphors

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow. For I will be near thee, thy trouble to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”  – How Firm a Foundation

When my husband and I were first dating, he took me to La Jolla beach in San Diego to swim in the ocean. Since I’m from Oregon, where the ocean water is about -100 degrees Fahrenheit, sea bathing is not and has never been a familiar experience. The beaches of the Pacific Northwest are best known for being windy and inhospitable. Oregonians know that, while the coast is a great place for storm watching and eating hot chowder, actually swimming in the Pacific is not conducive to staying hypothermia-free. And we are strangely adamant about keeping our core body temperatures at a normal level – it’s one of our personal quirks.

The beach at La Jolla was surreal – like something out of a movie. People were actually lying around on towels and wearing swimsuits. With their skin exposed to the elements and everything! I scanned the horizon for a glimpse of a zip-up hoody or a pair of solid rubber rain boots, but there was nary-a-one to be found. I did see people eating ice cream and rollerblading, though. Kooky Californians.

Dustin and I found a one foot square spot of unoccupied sand and set down our belongings. Then we headed into the surf.

I followed my then-boyfriend through the ever rising water until he was about waist deep and I was in to my neck. We bobbed in companionable silence, waiting to ride a big wave into shore, a plan entirely based on my ignorance of ocean swimming and Dustin’s perpetual optimism.  I’m a small person with questionable equilibrium; I have trouble staying on my feet in mild wind. A less absent-minded man may have anticipated that a large wave would a bit much for my frame and started me out closer to shore. But Dustin is nothing if not absent-minded. And he is well over six feet and 200 pounds. The world seems like a lot safer place to glandular freaks (I mean, tall people).

When the “big one” finally came, I was utterly unprepared for the impact and was promptly sucked under water. I remember opening my eyes to a murky, bubbly haze and shutting them tight again so my contacts wouldn’t fall out. The wave pounded me mercilessly, spinning me upside down, sending my legs in all directions, and generally terrifying me. I didn’t know which way was up. I thought I was drowning.

After what seemed like an eternity, the ocean relinquished its prey and dumped me unceremoniously on the shore. I sat up, my heart pounding, and blew about a gallon of sea water out of my nose. I met the incurious eyes of a six-year-old boy, who was dragging his paddle board further into the surf. He was clearly thinking, amateur. Dustin, of course, hadn’t even been jostled by the wave and was still several yards out, waiting for something really gnarly to come along. I weakly crawled back to our towel and huddled there in the sun for the rest of the outing. I have not been swimming in the ocean since.

Recently, a dear woman I know (who is also Bipolar), reminded me that my experience swimming in the ocean is actually very similar to a major depressive period. The long, dismal waits between manic episodes are eerily akin to being sucked beneath a powerful wave. They are scary and disorienting. You truly believe you will never see the light again: you truly believe you are going to die. But, eventually, you get spit back up onto the shore, where you can lie in the nurturing rays of the sun for a while, blow your nose, and gather strength for the next wave.

After over ten years of mental illness, drowning is the best metaphor I’ve ever heard for a major psychiatric disorder, and it is especially pertinent to a disease as cyclical as Bipolar disorder. We who suffer in the darkness, we who go daily “through the deep waters” without life jackets or flotation devices, know what it is to lose hope – to find it again – to wipe off the sand for a while and try to read a magazine on the beach. We may be battered and bruised and water-logged, but we know how to survive. And someday, I firmly believe, we’ll get to rollerblade with the rest of the crowd, sucking down our shaved ice and feeling the caress of salt air. Until then, we can only do our best to avoid drowning.

Hmmm. Come to think of it, I believe I’ll ask Dustin to take me body surfing again next time we visit his parents. Maybe I’ll pick up some tips on how to keep my head above water.